Tumblers, clowns and horseback tricks in a 42-foot diameter performance ring – these are the components of modern circus established 250 years ago by cavalry officer turned impresario and equestrian stuntman Philip Astley. Although the founding of the art form took place in London, Astley himself was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme.
As such, the chance for a North Staffordshire celebration of the market town’s famous son is seized wholeheartedly in Frazer Flintham’s new play, a skilful comic mix of biography, live music and circus spectacle with local accent jokes aplenty.
It’s an ambitious production considering the modest scale of the New Vic’s in-the-round auditorium, but the risks pay off with aplomb. A wonderful sense of invention and imagination underpins the whole thing, from the suspended saddle that invokes precarious trick riding feats to the cuff-cum-hoof design details that adorn Luke Murphy’s rump-heavy equestrian costume during his truculent star turn as Billy the Little Military Horse.
After a somewhat slow start that emphasises the humble background and social ambitions of Nicholas Richardson’s robust Astley, the first act builds to a pacy and excitable climax, culminating in a confident aerial silk routine for him and soon-to-be wife Patty (Danielle Bird). It demonstrates just how eloquently and poignantly circus can communicate notions of intimacy and trust.
The second act inevitably loses some momentum in its depiction of Astley’s business rivalry and licensing misfortunes, but the sag is short-lived, buoyed by the frequent humour of Flintham’s writing and the nimble talents (both actorly and acrobatic) of an excellent cast.